Got game, no brain

Written by Morné Nortier (Morné)

Posted in :Original Content, Sharks, Stormers, Super Rugby on 31 Jul 2012 at 13:34
Tagged with : , , ,

Having read most of the post-mortems on the Stormers’ failure yet again in a playoff match, I can honestly I don’t buy into any of the reasons offered so far.

The general theme around the Stormers ‘shock’ exit from Super Rugby focusses on the type of game that they are playing, and have been playing all season (if not for 3 years running).  Descriptors like one-trick ponies, defence orientated game plans or just plain boring rugby seems common in most post match analysis I have read so far – but I disagree.

You do not fluke 14 out of 16 victories.  You do not fluke a top of the table finish in the world’s toughest provincial competition.  This Stormers team has got game, simple.

Coaching does play a part

That said, it is not to say coaching is not to blame if you look at this holistically.  Talking to some people after the game on Saturday I made the comment that I believe in many ways this Stormers team is over-coached, and if those reading this article now shows the same blank expression to those present at the time let me try an explain.

When you see a team work their asses off to not only defend against a good attack, but turn possession over only for some knob to kick the ball away and give it right back to them, you know you are dealing with a humanoid who has absolutely no interest of playing outside a pre-determined structure.

There we no less than 8 occasions where opportunities presented itself to the Stormers where they made inexplicable, but quite obvious pre-determined tactical decisions.  This Stormers team execute what is their game plan, and game tactics, with militant resolve and determination where there is absolutely no scope for following instinct or logic.

Paralysis through analysis

Analysis and statistics play a vital role in a complex, multi-dimensional game such as rugby, but the massive improvements in technology available to every person out there today sees coaches more often than not trying to justify an analytical question or criticism with some more analysis or statistics of their own resulting in nothing more than a dog’s breakfast.

It is also through analysis that too much is sometimes made of how teams play, or should play, to the extent of specific, tailor-made condition programs developed for each specific team and its players to suit the type of game they want to play.

In other words, not only are players ‘programmed’ (read manipulated) mentally through statistics and analysis to simply do and not think, they are also ‘produced’ to suit any teams pre-conceived style of play.

All game, no brain

A complex game like rugby is reliant on structure, no coach, team or player can operate successfully without some form of structure or plan, but there needs to be a balance.

The problem you have when you program little robots or humanoids is that at some stage, that code will be broken, and once that happens, you need a ‘control-alt-delete’ to properly fix the problem.

Why is it that we still insist in training every single muscle in the human body except the most important one – the brain?

Whenever you mention the word mental or mind coach to the majority of our conservative coaching personnel you are met with a dismissive response or attitude to the effect of ‘we don’t need kop-dokters to tell us how to play rugby’ – somehow believing that the investment in a mental coach is something only sissies do…

And when at times you do get minimal buy in from coaches in this regard who afford these individuals sessions once every two weeks or at best, 10 minutes once a week, you get the inevitable ‘see I told you it’s useless, we have seen zero improvement’.

It is almost believed that mental coaches carry a magic wand in which they can fix or improve a team’s mental application with a simple Abra-Ka-Dabra.  These individuals will tell you themselves that mental conditioning needs complete buy-in from a team or a coach where they are afforded just one magic session every second week.

Consider the patterns

Just looking at the Stormers a familiar pattern emerges.  Since 2010 they have made 3 semi-finals (one final) but faltered quite spectacularly at times in these high-pressure, playoff situations.

This is a pattern also found when you look at their provincial team in the colours of Western Province rugby.  On Saturday Allister Coetzee said that the team will (once again) sit down and analyze what went wrong on Saturday, no doubt reviewing hours of video footage and analyzing every single second and decision of the match.

They will form rugby conclusions through the analysis, tell themselves that the execution was not up to standard, and go back and make plans to hopefully try and improve this on the practice field practicing line outs, scrums, rucks, mauls, kicks, passing and tackling believing next year will be different.

And there will be no point.

The Stormers are no doubt good enough to win Super Rugby, and have been for 3 years running, they got the game, they lack the mental application.

Other patterns we can consider is where mental and mind coaches enjoyed great buy-in from teams and what the long term effects of this was.

  • Jannie Putter, Bulls, 2006 to 2010 (3 Super Rugby titles)
  • Tim Goodenough, Sharks, 2007 (Super Rugby final)
  • Henning Gericke, Springboks, 2004 to 2007 (Rugby World Cup)
  • Ross Tucker, Mens Hockey & Springbok Sevens (2008, Sevens World Series Champions)
  • Tom Dawson-Squibb (UCT 2011 & Stormers 2010)

For some reason, following the Stormers’ final appearance in 2010 they cut ties with Dawson-Squib and his company with no reason as to why.

I have to re-iterate, mental coaches are not miracle workers, nor is their work guaranteed to provide miracle results, but similar to a defence coach, skills coach, scrum coach, line out coach, or any other coach used in professional rugby today, with time and becoming integral to any team’s coaching setup, they add immense value.

If the belief that 90% of any game is won in the head first is true, why are we not even affording expert coaches in this field even 1% of our time in a coaching environment?  I mean it should belogical, shouldn’t it?


  • Good read Morne.

    A good example is the Sharks, funny enough.

    It’s noticeable that at the beginning October the season we played a plan which robotically revolved around using Bismarck, Alberts etc to gain yardage. The backs were nowhere.

    Halfway through, fueled by desperation and injuries, we started depending more on the whole team. Self-belief has been generated by this dependence on these individuals. You can see the positive impact guys like JP and Kanko have had on team mates.

    JP is playing so well because of being backed. And being given the freedom to contribute in the best way he can means that after many years we are once again seeing the true ability of a guy who spent the last few seasons being the defensive gameplan wing that his various coaches wanted.

    Thinking, confident players contribute more than robots.

  • Comment 1, posted at 31.07.12 14:13:15 by Big Fish Reply
    Big Fish
  • AMEN!

  • Comment 2, posted at 31.07.12 14:16:02 by Die Kriek Reply

  • My question is if you believe the Stormers fell flat due to lack of consistent mental coaching, who has been doing the mental coaching for the Sharks these last few weeks?

  • Comment 3, posted at 31.07.12 14:27:43 by Bokhoring Reply
  • @Bokhoring (Comment 3) :

    Read Fish’ comment.

  • Comment 4, posted at 31.07.12 14:32:23 by Morné Reply
  • Good article.

    Over coached could also mean under coached. What I mean by this is their coached well when it comes to executing the basics, but you also need a coach that will coach them to be thinkers on the field.

    Only the best players read the game without or with very little coaching, Jean de Villiers being an example of this, the problem is the Stormers don’t have natural thinkers in this team and those that were natural thinkers has been coached out of it. (Grant has become much more robotic than he used to be, so has Aplon, Habana and de Jongh). All players who were better creators before the current coaching staff took over at the Stormers.

    This team is over coached (or perfectly coached) in one area and not coached at all in the other.

    This is why a very good team, with talented players has a very small representation in Bok colours. A Bok coach don’t have time to coach creativeness back into players, he needs that to already be there when they arrive from their provinces.

  • Comment 5, posted at 31.07.12 14:34:54 by Letgo Reply
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  • @Morné (Comment 4) : So you think it has more to do with the players self-belief than any influence from Plum and co?

  • Comment 6, posted at 31.07.12 14:36:44 by Bokhoring Reply
  • @Bokhoring (Comment 6) :


    I made the comment following the Bulls game I believe – this was amplified when they went on tour (as it sometimes happens on tours).

    I see less of Plum in this Sharks team forcing his hand on game plan and selections – or perhaps he has changed his approach too?

    Just my perception.

    But quite typical sometimes when teams have their balls against the wall as the Sharks had leading into the play-off scenario. Players create a massive self-belief amongst themselves lead by the seniors in the squad.

  • Comment 7, posted at 31.07.12 14:40:09 by Morné Reply
  • Brilliant read

  • Comment 8, posted at 31.07.12 14:44:07 by jako Reply
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  • Awesome article, although you’ve beaten this drum before, haven’t you?

    Quite strange to see a team like the Stormers playing so much by rote and routine; with supremely talented guys like De Villiers, Aplon and Habana in the team they should be able to rip opponents to shreds when given half a sniff.

  • Comment 9, posted at 31.07.12 14:48:43 by Culling Song Reply
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    Culling Song
  • @Culling Song (Comment 9) :

    To death buddy, to death…

  • Comment 10, posted at 31.07.12 14:50:04 by Morné Reply
  • I think one Sharks player that needs special mention in these past weeks is Keegan. He has been immense – both in terms of his contribution as player and as captain

  • Comment 11, posted at 31.07.12 14:54:23 by Bokhoring Reply
  • Excellent point about being over-coached Morne. I can draw a parallel with the other sport I love sailing. We talk about strategy and tactics. The physical parts of the game need to be drilled into the players from early on in their careers. The coach then develops a strategy (or game plan) for the team. However, and this is so critical, the coach must also understand that strategy only gets one so far in the game. As the situation changes, the strategy becomes less effective, and the players must be coached to recognize this, and be empowered to change tactics during the match (race). This is a sign of a well coached (balanced) team, one that understands the strategy and feels they have the authority to make tactical decisions.

  • Comment 12, posted at 31.07.12 14:55:21 by Dancing Bear Reply
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  • @Dancing Bear (Comment 12) : Very nicely put DB! Couldn’t agree more.

    And thanks for the article Morne! Insightful as usual. You’ve been missed.

  • Comment 13, posted at 31.07.12 15:07:46 by vanmartin Reply
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  • @Bokhoring (Comment 11) : Yip, I second that. He’s been huge for us. He has gotten rid of some of the flash that some (me) thought he needed to be the Keegan could turn a game around, but he has completely turned my opinion of him around, doing the grunt work, getting involved wherever he has been needed.

    I’m really impressed.

    He has also become a really good captain. You see him talking to the players all the time. And not like most Captains, who always pulls players around him and makes a whole speech, it’s all very Keegan like, he’d just talk to them all the time. Before they go down for a scrum, after a penalty has been conceded. Just here and there, he keeps talking to the players in his cool and calm manner.

  • Comment 14, posted at 31.07.12 15:10:14 by Letgo Reply
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  • There is a fine line between instilling winning playing habits and losing the ability of a player to reaction in any given situation.

    As Tony Dungy, the American football coach, put it: “Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking…. too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

  • Comment 15, posted at 31.07.12 15:11:36 by Dive Pass Reply

    Dive Pass
  • @Morné (Comment 7) : How close to anyone in the Sharks set up are you, if at all?

  • Comment 16, posted at 31.07.12 15:16:04 by Salmonoid Reply
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    Salmonoid the Subtle
  • @Salmonoid (Comment 16) :

    I am as far removed from anyone official at the Sharks as Allister Coetzee is from reality and who the best option at scrumhalf is for the Stormers! 🙂

  • Comment 17, posted at 31.07.12 15:17:44 by Morné Reply
  • @Salmonoid (Comment 16) :

    My perceptions on players are largely based having worked in that environment before (coaching). You get a feeling when players are just gelling. This is also usually when a coach needs to do very little in terms of actual coaching, you just help the players ride that wave for as long as possible.

  • Comment 18, posted at 31.07.12 15:19:43 by Morné Reply
  • @Morné (Comment 17) : On AC, do you have any idea how much hands on coaching he does with the team. I’m probably totally wrong but I get the impression that AC’s real go to man is first and foremost his defensive guru (cant get his name now, Nienaber?) and that the forwards and back coaches then adapt around his strategy. One never sees him in the coaching boxes while the others are quite visible, but I just feel he is probably 50% of what we see on any given match day.

  • Comment 19, posted at 31.07.12 15:27:07 by Salmonoid Reply
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    Salmonoid the Subtle
  • it’s a said indictment on the kind of players SA produces when a backline featuring our current bok captain can be accused of not being mentally up for it amongst other things…between grant, de villiers, de jongh, aplon & pieterson you have players that have been called up to the boks at various time but when the play together one would never guess.

  • Comment 20, posted at 31.07.12 15:29:40 by Megatron Reply

  • @Salmonoid (Comment 19) :

    He is very involved in fact – and on Nienaber, that is a name you will not see amongst WP and Stormers ranks for much longer.

    @Megatron (Comment 20) :

    Jean in his own words: “I am doubting my own ability” (to lead I assume).

  • Comment 21, posted at 31.07.12 15:32:51 by Morné Reply
  • @Morné (Comment 18) : I was at Newlands on Saturday and it struck me that the Sharks looked particularly switched on and new exactly what was needed of them. They looked well coached but with the feeling that they could do something confidently unexpected at any time on attack and their defensive play was of abunch of guys that new exactly what to do and when. They may have been knackered but they were well oiled and almost seamless.

  • Comment 22, posted at 31.07.12 15:34:38 by Salmonoid Reply
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  • @Morné (Comment 21) : Nienaber – Boks maybe?
    On Cape Talk yesterday, AC mentioned that he was very happy with the coaching set up – gave the impression that there would be no changes.

  • Comment 23, posted at 31.07.12 15:37:55 by Salmonoid Reply
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  • @Salmonoid (Comment 22) :

    Sharks are playing awesome rugby at the moment – the best I have seen since 2007.

  • Comment 24, posted at 31.07.12 15:38:22 by Morné Reply
  • @Salmonoid (Comment 23) :

    Nienaber yes – and no not Boks, they have McFarland already. But he is going to fill McFarland’s void elsewhere… 😉

  • Comment 25, posted at 31.07.12 15:39:16 by Morné Reply
  • @Megatron (Comment 20) : This is the big conundrum – those guys should keep any opposing team guessing, and the fans (not only Stormers) wanting more. Not one game in which 4 tries was scored by the Stormers over the whole competition says a lot.

  • Comment 26, posted at 31.07.12 15:41:12 by Salmonoid Reply
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  • @Morné (Comment 25) : Ahaa.

  • Comment 27, posted at 31.07.12 15:43:05 by Salmonoid Reply
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  • @Salmonoid (Comment 26) : and i didn’t even count habana, all these kop dokters that morne counted have WORKERD with most of those players at various points eg habana while at the bulls – putter and with gericke @ bok level, same with jdv…de jongh grant were in the stormers set up in 2010…are we to believe they forgot all they learnt?

  • Comment 28, posted at 31.07.12 15:53:23 by Megatron Reply

  • @Morné (Comment 17) : What’s up with that irritating little backup scrummie of the Streamers – he somehow evaded all the bullies in school and never got knocked into place 😡

  • Comment 29, posted at 31.07.12 16:06:04 by FireTheLooser Reply

  • @Megatron (Comment 28) :

    I tried to bring the point across in the end that mental coaching is like fitness and skills coaching (or any coaching) – it needs to be ongoing.

    Habs worked with Calder under Jake too – stopped subsequent – started again late 2011 and see the player he is this year compared to the last 3…

    @FireTheLooser (Comment 29) :

    Remember Freddie Ferreira? 🙂

  • Comment 30, posted at 31.07.12 17:39:16 by Morné Reply

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